Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Permaculture Jardin de Cure´

The French "Jardin de Cure´" might just be the original "Permaculture garden" of temperate Europe. I believe we have a lot to learn from these old, evolved gardening systems of traditional cultures, so our front yard at Lillie House was deeply inspired by this style of garden. Let me take you on a tour of our "Permaculture Jardin de Cure´" while I share some garden pictures from this morning.  

The "Curate" or "Cure´" was the head parishioner in the French Presbyterian Church and his garden had to be multi-functional and easy to care for. The curate himself would have planned and maintained his garden, with the help of some volunteers from his congregation. So, not only did it provide an important source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the curate and his family, it also had to help provide for the needs of his congregation, and be easy to maintain in the busy curate's free time.  

As the most learned man in his community, he was often called upon to be a healer of physical ailments as well as spiritual ones. So his garden needed to be a true "physic garden," one of the town's most important sources of herbal medicines, such as the beautiful flowers of wild perennial flax above, which--once cooked--can be used like regular flax seeds. The plant material can also be used for a rustic linen. 

And, of course, the curate had to attend to the spiritual needs of his flock in times of crisis, when they were in need of comfort. Soft colors dominated by shades of blue, lavender and white painted a soothing spiritual backdrop. 

And when it was time for celebration, the curate's garden provided the church with a sorce of beautiful cut flowers, again in soft, spiritual colors. Even today, many french flower and rose cultivars in these soft colors bear the names of saints, a testament to their history in the Jardin de Cure´. In fact, curates and their gadens were important in the history of French plant breeding. The "dames rocket" (above right) would have figured as both a vegetable and a flower in the curate's garden. 

And, since this multi-purpose garden had to be both beautiful and easy to care for in the spare time of the curate and his congregation, a polyculture system of formal beds with informal plantings was used to cut down work and keep things tidy. Hidden inside these geometric beds called "parterres," vegetables, medicinal herbs, fruit trees, flowers, and what many today would call "weeds," grew together in a wild profusion similar to the English Cottage Garden, only surrounded with edging of box, or with useful herbs such as thyme or lavender. At Lillie House, our oregano and lavender hedge imitates the low box edging in the exotic formal gardens that the well-educated curate would have seen at gardens like Versailles. Unlike a boxwood hedge, when we trim our edging, it's time for oregano pesto, or Greek potatoes!

And finally, at the end of the day, this edible, medicinal, flower garden had to be a spiritual retreat and meditation sanctuary for the curate. 

It had to be a meditative space of natural beauty, but also of spiritual importance. Formal beds were typically laid out in the form of a cross, with other symbols and spiritual reminders woven throughout. Our secular Permaculture-inspired version takes the shape of an ankh, an ancient symbol of permanence and a fitting symbol of the goals of Permaculture which are spiritually important to us. 

The garden was enclosed by walls, mixed hedges or espalier trees--or a mix of these--to create the feeling of sanctuary, in the manor of Christendom's oldest spiritual gardens the Hortus Conclusus, which is so often seen depicted in medieval art. 


This was thought to symbolize the garden of eden or perhaps to even invoke heaven. 

And--just as in Permaculture--water was a mandatory element in the garden, usually located at the center of the cross, in the form of a simple pond or well. 

Today, there's renewed interest in this very old style of multi-functional garden, but it's not for the first time! Back when our house was built, this form of garden became a brief fad in the US, especially for victorian enterance gardens in the "beautiful" style of architecture. While the English Cottage Garden style would have been recommended for "picturesque" homes like the gothic style, the Jardin de Cure could have been the template for our Italianate home. Who knows, perhaps ours is not the first garden of this style to adorn our front yard.

For home Permaculture gardeners looking to invoke some of the social elements of this traditional garden style, here are some patterns from the Jardin de Cure´ that could be helpful:

1. Formal Beds with Informal Plantings. Oregano or Thyme "edging" can help keep things looking neat, while using "messy" looking polycultures that require less maintenance than "tidy" plantings would. Mix up fruits, veggies and flowers together, as in a "forest garden." 

2. Include water. Humans and wildlife are naturally drawn to water. 

3. Create comfortable places to sit for contemplation, with beautiful views. 

4. Make nice paths for a walk, with interesting things to see along the way.  

5. Use spiritually meaningful symbols, these could be symbols of nature, secular humanism, philosophy or religious meaning--Anything you can connect with personally. This will add a layer of depth to your garden and what it has to offer you. 

6. Rely on cool, calming colors like the blues and whites of the Jardin de Cure´. These provide an overall theme for the garden that can still harmonize well with pops of of other colors, such as the reds of roses or the yellows of brassicas gone to flower. 

7. Include gifts (plants, statues, pots...) from friends and family, and your garden will speak to you on a personal level. 

8. Create a feeling of enclosure and privacy with mixed, hedges of fruit and flowering plants. 

9. Plant many aromatic plants! The multi-functional Permaculture garden should appeal to all the senses. 

A few more recommended resources on the Jardin de Cure´:



Or see our article on Post Wild Edible Gardening for more ideas about beautiful edible landscaping design.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Food Forest Tours

This summer, we will be collaborating with Forest Gardener PJ Chmiel to host a series of informational tours of our forest gardens. We think this is an interesting chance to see a whole range of management techniques at two different forest gardens throughout most of the growing season. Since there's so much to see at a forest garden, each tour will have a theme that we can discuss in-depth. We'll be handing out free information and we'll even have a few interesting forest garden plants available for sale or trade.

For more information about these tours, please visit: 


Monday, May 11, 2015

Stir-Fried Food Forest

With a home forest garden, our meals usually start with a quick trip out the front door. And when we're busy, "Stir-Fried Food Forest" is often on the menu. Today's perennial or self-sown veggies all came from within 50 feet of our front door. In about 5 minutes of work, with no required yearly digging or planting, I found perennialized garlic, perennial spring onions, self-sown carrots, sorrel, lovage, turkish rocket "broccoli," asparagus and a few herbs to spice things up. 

A quick chop and a light stir-fry meant dinner went from "farm to table" in about 15 minutes. 

You want to know what "fresh" really tastes like?

Turkish rocket is a perennial related to arugula and "dames rocket," ("false phlox") a common "weed" in Michigan. In very early spring, soon after the snow melts, the plant's leaves make a very good arugula substitute. Later, they grow fuzz and gain a strong flavor. The "broccoli" also have a powerful "umami" flavor often compared to oysters. It can be off-putting in many dishes, but harmonizes well with the deep flavors of shoyu, sesame oil and mushrooms. 

It's a natural grassland plant, so it competes well with grasses, but persists well into light woodland, making it an excellent choice for a "Fortress plant" (plants that keep grasses and weeds at bay) to edge a garden bed, hedgerow or forest garden.


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!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Establishing a Food Forest Garden: Planting Density

(A view of one of our forest gardens with high density. Looks like a natural system!)

What's the correct density for a Food Forest Garden in the Great Lakes region? How close do you plant the trees? How should density change as the forest matures? We'll look at a variety of perspectives on the topic and discuss how we can pick the right strategy for each garden and gardener to maximize productivity and minimize maintenance.

First of all, there's no wrong way to forest garden. We humans seem to have a built-in ability to garden this way. It is, after all, one of the oldest human activities--something we evolved doing. That's one of the great things about these gardens, they're instinctive and nearly fool proof. In addition, these systems will evolve along with the gardeners and self-correct with time. Compared to the average American lawn, a forest garden's practically always going to be lower maintenance than a pure stand of mown grass and it will pay you back in home-grown fresh food. Without a doubt, it's the easiest way I've ever tried to garden.

In our forest garden projects, including the ones documented here at Lillie House, we studied a variety of perspectives on planting density, from traditional home gardens, experienced temperate forest gardeners, ecologists, and even conventional orcharding science and forest science. In all of these, planting density is probably the number one factor that will effect productivity, system health and maintenance. 

In the temperate climates, our most productive ecosystems are savannas, forest edges and open woodland where enough light can penetrate the canopy to support flourishing productive layers underneath. Meanwhile, mature forests are less productive, but they are our most stable ecosystems. 

So density acts as a sort of "dimmer switch" that slides the garden between ease of maintenance (closer to established forest density) and high productivity (lower density, savanna density) and it can be adjusted as the garden and gardener mature, depending on the needs of both. A great forest garden can take advantage of this by managing succession and planning for the flexibility to change density--and slide that dimmer switch, as the need arises, giving ease of maintenance when the gardener is busy and high productivity when desired.    

(Another one of our forest gardens, lower density, looks like a formal garden.)

This "dimmer switch" can be especially useful during the early phases of establishing a forest garden, when high planting density can fast-forward succession by mimicking forest ecology and cutting down on the high workload associated with starting any new garden. 

So, in our forest gardens, we've used different planting strategies and densities depending on our goals and time limits. Lets take a look at a few of these different perspectives: 

Robert Hart: The classic recommedation about planting a food forest comes from the man often considered the first modern forest gardener, Robert Hart. Robert's recommendation was to select the species you want, starting with large overstory fruit and nut trees, and plant those at just over orchard density. So, this would be about 30 feet for many species. Next, he suggests selecting smaller understory fruit trees and planting those in the gaps, again at orchard density, or about 10 feet. Next he planted shrubs, again at orchard density, in the gaps between those... then filled in the rest of the spaces with herbs, ground covers and root crops. 

(Photo, wikimedia)

This is a true "food forest" with forest canopy coverage of 100% early on in succession and staying that way through maturity. At that point, these gardeners say their main maintenance task is yearly pruning to open up the canopy in order to increase productivity. Otherwise, these gardens quickly become self-weeding and mulching. 

A few of the most famous and thriving temperate forest gardens were planted in this way, including the Jardin Des Fraternities Ouvrieres, Beltaine cottage, and Robert's own garden.

Rober Hart describes his approach in his book "Forest Gardening.

(A view of Les Jardins des Fraternities Ouvrieres)

Jacke and Toensmeier: many modern forest gardeners (Crawford, Toensmeier, Jacke, etc.) consider Robert Hart's garden too dense at maturity for the temperate zone. (Edible Forest Gardens) While this spacing would be very productive in early years, the density and shading lead to reduced diversity and productivity as the canopy closes--if trees aren't removed from the system over time. 

Recognizing this problem, Jacke and Toensmeier recommended planting to achieve "open woodland" density at maturity, somewhere between a10-20% gap between tree canopies to canopies touching but not intermingling. This density allows for a greater diversity in the layers, right down to a ground cover and herbaceous layer. They also recommend heterogenous plantings, to maximize diversity, so no standard spacing or rows are used. 

At his Holyoke Edible Forest Garden, Eric Toensmeier intensively planted his entire urban garden in finished guilds all at once after a large-scale sheet mulching, using these spacing recommendations. This created a stable system quickly, but required a huge effort up front to plan and execute. On just 1/10th of an acre, this approach is still manageable. 

(Photo: www.foodforestfarm.com)

Martin Crawford used similar spacings in his famous forest garden, starting with planting all the trees at once and gradually filling in the understory by killing off small sections with black plastic mulch as the trees matured. This process is described in Martin Crawford's books as well as in the Toensmeier/Jacke book "Edible Forest Gardens."


Geoff Lawton: Geoff Lawton has probably established more food forest gardens than any other living person, and that kind of experience teaches some good lessons. Since he often installs gardens for other people, Geoff's approach focusses on extensive establishment that quickly stablizes a system and leads to very low maintenance through high up-front planting densities. This insures his success, even after he leaves. In his warm temperate climate, Geoff recommends planting your target species--high value productive trees at approximately orchard spacing, then filling in the spaces with an incredibly high density rough diamond grid (to avoid rows which mimick a low-density forest edge) of up to 9 support trees for every target tree. These support trees are planned as "sacrificial" trees to be cut into mulch as the target trees mature and need more room. He plants a variety of fast growing "early succession" trees along side mid and late succession support trees to nurse the system into maturity. Using an orchard spacing large trees at 30 feet, with interplantings of small fruit trees, we end up with a planting density of around 2'. Using this kind of system, the trees quickly dominate the ground, out-compete weeds and establish a stable forest with great soils. This mimicks traditional hedge-row planting desnities in cold temperate Europe. 

(Geoff with a new forest garden, each pole is a tree! www.pri.org)

Geoff Describes his approach in a series of videos available through PRI. http://permaculturenews.org/shop/dvd/food-forest-dvd/
Highly recommended!

Toby Hemmenway: Another approach that quickly establishes dominance is the "guilds that intersect" recommendation in Gaia's Garden, specifically for home scale Permaculture. In this method, you plant trees at forest orchard density and simultaneously plant the lower (shrub and herbaceous) layers to create a complete, stable system all at once. In this way, you can convert an area to forest garden one tree guild at a time. While this system takes more energy, planning and investment up front, it simultaneously maximizes early productivity while minimizing maintenance. 

And while we're at it, here's one more well-thought-out vote for high density techniques:


(A guild we planted at once, very low maintenance and high productivity!)

Mark Shepard's STUN: Sheer Total Utter Neglect. The STUN approach is a both a low-density planting system and moderate maintenance, primarily recommended--as I understand it--for broadscale Permaculture alley cropping, intercropping or orcharding systems (moreso than for food forest gardens) where high plant loss, moderate maintenance and low early productivity is acceptable. It could also be considered a plant breeding program aiming to select species that thrive under poor circumstances. I've heard a few Permaculture fans experimenting with this approach for establishing forest gardens, but there doesn't seem to be many examples to evaluate yet. 


To me, any of these techniques could be the best approach for a particular garden. 

For example, in our front yard, our priority was ease of maintenance, since we needed to have a landscape appropriately tidy for the city. Since, we'd be doing extra maintenance anyway, we could also plan on high-productivity, so we put our money and effort into planting into complete guilds, one at a time before moving on to the next gild. Over time, these 9 guilds have intersected into one food forest system. Since we fast-forwarded succession by planting established guilds, this 3,000 SF of food forest probably only takes a few hours a month of non-harvest maintenance. It also provides a huge amount of food for such a young garden. 

Meanwhile, with all that intensive effort going into our front yard, our back yard had to be much more "extesnsive." so we planted at densities (often from seed, or by transplanting or encouraging weed trees.) closer to a Geoff Lawton system. Many of these trees have already received heavy pruning just 4 years into the system. While it took more time to set up, this forest garden takes more time annually to maintain at this point, even though it looks a bit "rougher." It also provides less food at this point than our front yard. 

Any garden I plan in the future will likely be a mix of these approaches (starting with at least one complete guild) to insure a good balance of productivity, maintenance and up-front investment. 

In general, the two mistakes I usually make are too little density early on and too much density at maturity... meaning, I need to plan better for a garden that ages well. 


And finally, lets look at some young natural forest systems in early establishment, to see how mother nature plants them in SW Michigan:

Young trees in a small system, on the south of a large tree. The small area means lots of light penetration, supporting very high densities that are self-mulching. 

Another new forest of small trees on the edge of a more established forest. Again, the density makes it self-mulching and stable. Mix of cane fruit, bushes and small trees. 

Density depends on soil and other factors. Here sandy soils on a steep slope have naturally less density. 

Self mulching densities, cane fruit, bushes, trees. The blackberries here are very productive, even at this tight spacing, providing both a nurse crop and an early succession yield. As the system ages, these will naturally get shaded out. 

Hard to see... young trees convert a field on very sandy soil. Pioneer trees tend to group into thickets where they can out-compete grasses and become self-mulching quickly. Then these little natural guilds expand out, eventually connecting. As they build soil and defeat grass, they make way for mid-succession trees to establish. 

These are the densities that nature will support here in SW Michigan, very similar to the densities Geoff Lawton plants in. You can plant at lower densities, but be ready for nature to fill all the niches you leave. which could either be a benefit (free plants!) or a huge maintenance problem (weed trees!) depending on your perspective.