Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fresh inspiration

As I've whined too much already, it's hard to garden from Limbo. Everything is either tentative or hypothetical. I'm not ordering any seeds this year as I have such a large stockpile and a lack of motivation to try new stuff. Most of my winter garden reading attempts have tended more toward frustration than inspiration.

But I've found a wonderful exception: The Permaculture Home Garden by Linda Woodrow. It's a bit hard to come by here, since it's out of Australia. I'm not sure why it isn't more widely available. I got mine from a third-party seller on for about $35.

I love some of the ideas that permaculture strives for, but you almost have to be an expert botanist to pull off some of the techniques. They're often heavy on cool concepts, but light on detailed examples. Other techniques require loads of labor or money or resources up front (teams of workers, earth movers, materials, etc.) that aren't always feasible.

Where Woodrow's book shines is that she's come up with a system that implements the concepts of permaculture in a way that:
- works on a home scale
- doesn't require a huge up-front investment (probably comparable to starting a traditional garden from scratch)
- incorporates lots of familiar annual vegetables, fruit & nut trees, and chickens (these are a few of my favorite things)
- can be adapted to use a worm farm if chooks aren't a good fit for your site
- can produce an amazing quantity of food from a relatively small space
- is small enough to fit in most suburban yards, but that is modular enough to scale up quite well
- is aesthetically pleasing enough to work almost anywhere

The basic unit of the system is a circle. These are combined to form a larger building block she calls a "mandala". A mandala has a circular bed in the middle, surrounded by six more circles. These circular mandalas can even be made into a sort of "super mandala" if you're feeling really ambitious or want to make a living from it. (My inner geek loves the "fractalness" of it all.)

Each circular keyhole garden is 2 meters across, and after adding in paths, a full-sized mandala is about 15 meters across - or 20 meters if you extend out to the eventual drip lines of the small fruit & nut trees. I think not being in Australia, I wouldn't plant trees all the way around the circle. We don't get nearly as much sun. But trees around the southern edges might work. Then again I'm all about the trees, so I might push the limits myself.

Woodrow uses a clever adaptation of the chicken tractor to make a "chook dome" - a circular chicken pen 2 meters across (and about 2 meters high at the apex) that covers up one circle. The pen moves from circle to circle through the season with the chickens taking on the tasks of tilling, fertilizing, pest control and waste management.

But if you don't have room for a 15m mandala, there's no reason you couldn't break it into 2m circles and rearranging them to fit your space. And there's no reason you couldn't have less than 7 circles. You'd lose some of the benefits, but it seems modular enough that it'd still work pretty well.

So no matter where we end up or even if we stay put, I can while away the hours soaking up the details of her system, making minor adjustments to account for the climate differences, and being able to plop it all down as is in almost any location. Not to mention scouring the internet for people who have tried this system to see how it worked, what changes they made (like the geodesic chook dome)

I still can't necessarily start doing it, but it's enough to get me through the rest of winter with my sanity intact.

It's probably a little iffy to recommend a gardening book that uses unconventional techniques that you've never tried which were designed for a different climate (and a different hemisphere) that you haven't even finished yet.

But I don't care. I highly recommend this book. I've danced with many of these concepts before. I've just never seen them put together into a system that is so elegant (in every sense of the word).

One last note - as I was reading the book I was entertaining my brain by always converting metric to non-metric, north-facing to south-facing, east to west, etc. Well, until I realized halfway through the book that while Australia is a long way off, the sun does still rise in the east and set in the west there. The Southern Hemisphere doesn't rotate the other way around. Duh...

(Oh, and Linda has a blog that I will be devouring perusing shortly.)

A few images from others who have tried some of this stuff:


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At 2/25/2010 11:04 AM, Blogger Wendy said...

Love the "chook dome." My daughter built a geodesic dome in her pre-Physics class using rolled newspaper. I saw it, and thought "chicken tractor." I'm glad to know that I'm not weird ;).

Have you seen Pat Moreno's stuff? She blogs at She's in Roxbury, MA and does something similar, except she uses rectangular beds rather than circles. What I love about both designs is that everything is integrated, which, especially in small-space suburban gardening, is really a necessity.

At 2/27/2010 8:45 AM, Blogger e4 said...

Wendy - Yeah, I'm a fan of hers too. I love all the ideas that are out there these days....


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