Dear Miss Floribunda,
What is permaculture? I caught a snatch on a cable TV channel about it, and apparently it eliminates weeding and replanting. I am certainly tired of weeding! Is this too good to be true?
Lazy on Livingston Street
Permaculture (“permanent” plus “agriculture”) is a portmanteau term coined in the 1970s by two Australian ecologists named Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who were studying methods of regenerative farming. It is a concept designed to restore and/or protect the soil microbiome by planting perennial or succession crops, avoiding tilling, and eliminating of chemical fertilizers. The idea is to emulate forests and prairies, with their beneficial insects, natural fertility due to self-composting, and healthy soil structure sustained by an undisturbed microbial network. This network of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms enhances the ability of plants to assimilate nutrients.
To see living examples of permaculture, visit the Emerson Street Food Forest in Hyattsville (4515 Emerson Street) or the Greenbelt Food Forest at Springhill Lake Recreation Center. You will see fruit and nut trees, most of them native, edible ground covers and berry-providing shrubs. No rototilling is done because it would disturb the delicate microbial network. In addition, deep tilling often brings seeds of unwanted plants close to the surface where they can sprout. Low-growing plants, some of which are perennial and others that are annual and succeed each other, provide ground cover. In contrast to those bare patches of soil so hospitable to weeds, a dense ornamental or edible herbal cover will keep unwanted plants from getting established, stabilize soil temperature and prevent soil erosion and water runoff. Ground cover is, in fact, a living mulch. The different root lengths of the plants prevent competition for nutrition. Those plants that don’t provide food for humans provide food and shelter for beneficial insects, effectively eliminating the temptation to use chemical pesticides. These food forests have been meticulously planned by experts, who are happy to share their knowledge.
However, I assume by your self-confessed laziness that you are not willing to go to the trouble of establishing anything so ambitious as a multilayered food forest. You are mostly interested in having a garden that is easy to care for. You haven’t mentioned what is already in your garden, and whether or not you grow vegetables in the summer. If you’d like to write again and let me know your tastes and needs, I can refer your questions to gifted gardeners in the Hyattsville Horticultural Society, such as Aunt Sioux, Wendy Wildflower, Dr. Honeywell and Capability Green — to name a few.
However, please don’t imagine any garden can be maintained without any effort at all. Certain quite invasive weeds will get into your garden whether you like it or not. I have in mind especially those with berries whose seeds are spread by passing birds: English ivy, poison ivy, porcelain berry and bush honeysuckle. Obviously, poison ivy is undesirable, but English ivy and porcelain berry also can strangle and kill shrubs and trees — even the mighty oak. Bush honeysuckle harbors Lyme ticks. (Lyme disease is not an academic problem since deer began invading our gardens.). It is imperative to root out these beautiful menaces before they become invasive. Right now is the best time of the year to do it. Thanks to winter dieback of annual growth that might hide these unwanted perennial vines and shrubs, as well as continuous spring rain that penetrates down to their roots, loosening the soil anchoring them, you can easily find and dig these out by the roots. There is no other ecologically responsible way to eliminate them. However, it’s labor that is well worth the initial effort because it will rarely have to be repeated. Also, it opens the soil for planting deep-rooted perennials.