Where to Begin?
I’ve described the process of designing the garden and given lots of techniques to use. But ecological gardening is a new field crammed with fresh
information, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you are looking at your design sketches, nicely drawn according to zones and sectors and full of multifunctional
plants, and asking, “Yes, but what do I do first?” Sure, begin at your doorstep, but begin doing what? What are the very first things to do that will help a
garden become an ecosystem?
The title of an excellent book by Grace Gershuny gives the answer: Start with the Soil. Not only is the soil the base of the ecological pyramid and thus
the logical place to begin, but very shortly the soil will be stuffed with perennial plants and thus be much harder to work on. Bringing the soil to rich, loamy
fertility will accelerate and invigorate all that succeeds it. So the first step is to create a small bed of rich soil near the front or back door or in other close-in
site (how to choose the exact spot for this bed is explained in a few paragraphs).
Think of this luxuriantly fertile region as the heart of zone 1, the place that will support the first set of dense plantings and will probably be heavily
harvested. So this soil needs to be immensely fertile. This will be the initial nucleus of high fertility and diversity, to later be linked up with others, just as
Joel Glanzberg described.
To get the garden going, we want to build this startup bed’s soil rapidly. If there’s a source of compost available, then the fastest method to boost fertility
in a small space is to remove unwanted vegetation from this bed, and scratch in an inch or two of compost. Also add other necessary amendments such
as lime, phosphate, and potassium (a soil test will show what’s needed). If no compost is handy, then sheet mulching is the method I prefer.
Ecological Compromises, or You Can’t Make an Omelet . . .
In a perfect, environmentally opti- he doesn’t oppose a one-time use and heal broken cycles, we should be mized world, we’d never power-till, of
herbicide to prepare land for tree forgiving. all of our mulch supplies would planting, considering the energy Use techniques that work for you. come
from nearby—ideally from used and destruction caused by the I’ve seen permaculture sites that our own property—and we’d find alternative: bringing
in machines to mix conventional raised beds full of renewable sources of soil amend- clear the site year after year until annual plants with semiwild
forest ments instead of mined, exhaustible the trees are established. And other- gardens. The raised beds are efficient products such as rock
phosphate wise-organic gardener Doug Clayton to harvest, plus it’s easy to see what’s and greensand. But it’s not a perfect now applies the
insecticide Imidan going on. In a forest garden, plants world, and I’m not going to be so once a year to his fruit trees. He occasionally get lost in the
diversity. dogmatic as to demand we create believes a single dose of this effec- Mixing and matching an assortment and use our gardens using only
tive pesticide is far less harmful than of techniques is fine. completely sustainable techniques. what he once used: almost-weekly One rule of thumb for
making When it’s time to get our hands sprayings of organically accept- these sorts of choices is to think dirty, idealism runs into the brick able, yet
very toxic, pyrethrum and long-term. Using nonrenewable wall of practicality. I’d much rather rotenone. resources to create a landscape is see
gardeners consume some nonre- If renting a power-tiller once, or justified if, in the long run, that landnewable resources to create even- buying peat
moss from fossilized scape will conserve or provide more tually self-sustaining gardens than northern Canadian sphagnum beds, resources than it
took to build it. have them sit paralyzed by the fear or bulldozing to grade a site, or Using a less-than-natural technique of committing an
environmentally some other method eschewed by that produces homegrown food and incorrect act. the idealist is what it takes to get reduces the
pressure on wild land is We do what we’re comfortable your backyard ecosystem up and preferable to giving up in exhaustion. with. David Holmgren,
the coorigi- running, then do it. Especially in the Overall, doing an imperfect somenator of permaculture’s concepts, establishment phase, when we’re
thing is better than doing a perfect says, to the horror of purists, that working hard to restore abused land nothing.
As I mentioned in Chapter 4, I consider adding compost to be a short-term method, an emergency technique to quickly bring soil to decent fertility so
that a patch of ground can be pushed into production fast. But to build soil that is truly surging with life, I like sheet mulching—composting in place
—because it encourages multiple generations of soil life (ecological succession in the soil), fills the garden bed with the rich excretions of decomposer
organisms instead of wasting them beneath the compost pile, and leaves the soil creatures undisturbed. Besides, it’s much less work than building a
compost pile in one place and then transporting and working-in full cartloads of the finished product. The downside is that the sheet-mulched bed won’t
reach maximum fertility for a year or two. But it still can and should be planted immediately by using soil pockets or a thin top-dressing of good soil.
How big should this first bed be? That depends on how much compost or sheet-mulch material—and labor—is available. A typical wheelbarrow,
powered by a non-Herculean human, can hold one to three cubic feet of compost, enough to cover ten to thirty square feet of ground one inch deep. That’s
not much—it will take a lot of wheelbarrow loads to do a single garden bed. And, as I explained in Chapter 4, one pickup load of mulch material will cover
about fifty square feet. Also, remember to cover a small area well rather than a large area thinly.
Where exactly to locate these precious first garden beds? Here’s where knowing a little about microclimates comes in handy. Joel Glanzberg talked
about placing their first plantings along swales, where water would collect and linger and where potential shelter from wind and sun already existed. In
high-mountain Colorado, Jerome Osentowski built rock terraces that held heat in his frost-prone garden. And near cool, foggy San Francisco, Penny
Livingston planted a peach tree amid a set of small ponds, where stored heat from the water as well as reflected light would speed growth. Finding (or
creating) and using benign microclimates will boost the odds of success and accelerate plant growth, speeding the arrival of that happy day of system-
Which microclimates to choose depends on the overall environment and climate. What’s benign in the desert—a moist, shady, not well-drained site, for
example—would be disastrous in a damp northern climate, where a sunny, fairly dry spot is far better. In general, look for sites that have no wild swings of
temperature, moisture, or sunlight. Whatever the local climate extremes are in the region—brutally high or low temperatures, sogginess or drought, leaf-
crisping sun or months of kill-me-now gray skies—find a place that will counter or mitigate those extremes. Desirable in almost any location is lack of
wind, so locate the heart of zone 1 in the still shelter of a house, earth berm, wall, or planted windbreak.
If favorable microclimates don’t exist, as they didn’t for Roxanne Swentzell, then make them. Pile up rocks or logs or build a wall for a windbreak. Dig a
swale for wind protection and added moisture. Create a raised bed to improve drainage or a sunken one in dry climates to catch infrequent rain. Prune a
tree to let in light. Find and create good microclimates to give the garden the edge that it needs for a successful start.
Design guru Larry Santoyo, after giving some specific advice to his permaculture students, will often warn them, “The opposite is also true.” Without
meaning to confuse my readers, I will now illustrate this. In seeming contradiction to the ecological adage, “start at your doorstep,” Australian
permaculturist Geoff Lawton suggests that another important early step in ecological design is to define and control a property’s edges. Edge, after all, is
where flows and energy enter a site. These are opportunities. If missed, they can become problems.
For example, where do weeds and pests come from? From off the site. We need barriers at the edges and predator habitat to intercept them. An icy
north wind can stunt plant growth if left unblocked. An unpleasant sector energy like that needs to be identified early on and dealt with via a fence or other
quick windbreak, and this feature most likely will be located at the edge of the yard. Handled intelligently, flows across edges can be translated into useful
work or materials. Creating hedges, perimeter paths, edge plantings, and screens and simply defining the margins of activities will transmute potentially
destructive dynamics into useful energies. Defining edges can sculpt and organize work patterns, planting areas, and materials flows. Not only do we
want to harvest incoming resources like sun, water, and graywater, we want to make sure that nothing we generate on the site leaves unless we want it to.
Edge definition, which melds zones of activity with sector energies, will keep our efforts from simply diffusing outward by reminding us where we need to
focus our work and in what intensity.