We’ve already talked about permaculture in general, and in particular about patterns and mulching. Now we’re ready to plan our vegetable garden! When we talk about a household vegetable garden we mean a piece of land, which may be large or small depending on our lifestyle, very close to our home and where we can go daily. If you already have a vegetable garden you know that careful and functional planning of the various areas is fundamental!
If you still have to begin your garden, or if you want to enlarge the area you already cultivate, first you need to take a look around: make a cup of tea, and while you drink it observe carefully… where’s the most sun? Where does the frost settle in winter? Which direction does the wind blow from? Are there areas in shadow? What time of day does the sun fall on the ground? You must identify the existing elements and think carefully about them: paths, gates, slopes, fences, water sources, as well as the trees and bushes that already grow there, exposure and orientation of the ground, all of which will influence you produce (hopefully abundant!) and you work (hopefully minimum!) in the future, so it’s a good idea to study well beforehand and maybe make a drawing of you piece of ground.
When you also have a good idea of which vegetables, aromatic herbs and/or fruit tree you wish to grow, you need to put together all the elements you’ve collected and… draw a pattern of interweaving, curving lines, like a mandala! In permaculture a vegetable garden isn’t grown in rows: it’s a mélange of beds, tepees of climbing plants, flowers mixed with vegetables, in a colourful festive multicrop chaos. The aim of permaculture is to honour life and the complexity of all living things, so forget the tidy vegetable gardens that you’re used to seeing in conventional agriculture because “in chaos lies unparalleled opportunity for imposing creative order” (”Permaculture. A Designer’s Manual”, Bill Mollison).
When you plan you may need to foresee wind-breaking hedges, for example using bamboo plants (which have roots that grow a lot and will have to be kept under control but are great to use as mulch) or with Jerusalem artichokes (which besides flowering beautifully, have edible roots!)
The beds with aromatic herbs and salad leaves need to be easily accessible and close to the house and they can be bordered with vegetables such as: onions, fennel, celery, garlic (it can be useful to let some of these plants go to flower and propagate spontaneously).
The vegetables that are harvested more frequently (zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, peas, etc.) can be planted in beds that are fairly narrow (but always curved!) in order to guarantee good access. Tomato plants will grow well in "keyhole" beds: around the edge Jerusalem artichokes create a windbreak, while inside basil and chives are within easy reach, together with a few French marigolds and a nice dwarf nasturtium!
The wider beds are for the species that take longer to ripen and have a brief harvest period, for example potatoes, leeks, squash.
As far as climbing plants go, trellises or pergolas are a wonderful solution that, as well as making the best use of your space, can also have other functions: trellis can be used to make a fence, to create a shaded area or it can even become a permanent pergola structure (for example with vines or actinidia). Some of plants that are suitable to grow on trellises are climbing strawberries, passionflower, squash (if you support the fruit in nets) as well as many others.
While you’re about it you could also plan a pool: a small pond complete with water lilies, which will soon attract insect-eating frogs and newts and become a complex ecosystem! Naturally you can make the pond yourself: all you need to do is dig a fairly deep hole, line it with heavy plastic sheeting and fill it with water; then add few stones, a pot with water lilies and the rest will come naturally!
Photo: London permaculture