How permaculture saved my basement

Three years ago today, some friends invited me to hear permaculture enthusiast Toby Hemmenway speak at the Nicholas School of the Environment here at Duke.  As I walked to the lecture, a gentle snow blanketed the ground.  Little did I know what a positive impact this lecture would have on my life.

Permaculture, it turns out, is a garden design methodology that is modeled after natural ecosystems.  It is a beautiful and simple paradigm, and requires from the gardener a little common sense, some strategic planning and a bit of upfront work.  The gardener is then able to leverage the resources that nature provides for free. The end result for the gardener is a huge payoff in terms of yield versus mount of overall work in the garden.  Or as Hemmenway writes in his book, Gaia’s Garden, “The idea is that you buy nature drinks, and she picks up dinner for you.”

In his talk, Hemmenway traced the development of humans from primitive foragers to modern farmers.  He spoke about the rise of horticultural societies, cultures that had advanced beyond simple foraging but did not practice what we think of as modern farming.  They were (and are) something in-between.  Examples of these societies are numerous, such as the Hopewell culture in the U.S. or the Nuaulu in Indonesia.   To outside observers visiting these communities for the first time, Hemmenway said, their landscapes often  appeared wild and untamed; a closer look, however, would reveal things like sophisticated plant guilds and food forests growing everywhere.

I guess you could call these horticultural societies the first permaculture practitioners.  Hemmenway spoke about how people in these groups only had to work a few hours a day on food production, which gave them more time for leisure activities.  In contrast, the typical modern farmer would have to work 2-3 days to produce the same amount of food.

From that point on in the lecture, I was completely captivated.  I realized that through strategic planning and common sense I could actually work less in the garden and get better results at the same time!   All I had to do was adapt to the new paradigm.  If there was a gardening Bible, Gaia’s Garden became my New Testament, a radical break with my gardening past.

That spring my wife and I focused on utilizing all of the natural resources available to us in our yard, a sloped urban lot about a quarter acre in size.  We started with water collection.  I was amazed at how quickly the 80-gallon barrel we already had filled up, so I bought some 275-gallon barrels and put them under the other available downspouts.  With some help from my wonderful friends, we built a ten-by-twelve foot goldfish pond on the sloped backside of the yard.  We have about 2,000 gallons of water at our disposal at any given time.  We have never run out of water, even in the worst droughts of summer.

We also knew that we could take advantage of our sloped yard by catching water as it came down the hill.  We did this by slowly sculpting the yard, digging small trenches  and building up mounds of dirt, leaves and compost to catch water runoff. (Hemmenway describes these water-catching techniques in his book.)   The overflow area in front of our pond became a bog where we’ve planted things like insect-eating pitcher plants and scouring rush, which attracts insect-eating dragonflies.

With so much water available to us, we began thinking about turning our yard into a giant edible landscape. We started with blueberries, and have since added strawberries and elderberries, as well as fig, plum and paw-paw trees. We also plant vegetables, of course. This year we’ve created a new vegetable bed that will be fed by water runoff.

Adhering to the principles Hemmenway outlines in his book, I also became obsessed with making our yard a “closed system” where nothing would ever be thrown away.  I can’t think of a better example than the piles and piles of leaves that accumulate under our giant oak tree each fall.  In the old days, we would grudgingly rake up the leaves, put them in bags and let the yard waste people pick them up.  Now we use all of the leaves in the yard, creating small “hills” that are part of the contoured landscape. Eventually they turn into compost, along with the scraps from our kitchen, which we can use for gardening.

Three years later, it keeps paying off.  With all of the landscaping we’ve done, I don’t have to mow the yard anymore.  In fact, I gave our lawnmower away.  Strawberry plants have replaced much of the grass in the front yard.  Our basement used to flood regularly because of all the water runoff; we haven’t seen a drop of water in the basement in ages.  We’ve reduced the amount of time we have to spend watering the plants because nature is helping us out.  We’re attracting more wildlife to our backyard, including frogs, interesting birds, dragonflies and butterflies.  Most of all, we’re having fun and enjoying our yard more.  Thanks to my friends and the Nicholas School for turning me into a permaculture enthusiast!  Don’t take my word for it, see Hemmenway’s lecture  from  February 2010, and get his book,  Gaia’s Garden.

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