An close friend of mine from college who lives in the Lehigh Valley region of PA had kept a vegetable garden and some fruit trees at his house for several years, but it gradually began to grow over due to lack of attention. He asked me to take a look at his site, and see if I could offer some insight into how to help improve his gardening endeavors. Of course I was eager to do what I could to help!
The first obvious thing I noticed was that his existing garden was tucked into a far corner of the yard. This is a common error that many people make when siting a garden, and it ends up leading to an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” outcome. Although the season starts full of good intentions and energy, the reality is that too little time is spent there through the season, it doesn’t receive enough care at critical periods, weeds take over, harvests are missed, and the gardener quickly becomes discouraged and gives up.
Permaculture principles orient us toward a different approach, one in which we look at the patterns we already have in place. This approach starts with asking a few basic questions. What are the regular traffic paths around our home? What are the areas around our home that we pass by every day, or even several times a day? If we site our garden in one of these areas, we will check it every time we pass by, even if for only a few minutes or seconds each time. Consequently, seeing it more frequently will help us to identify problems or needs immediately, and we will be more likely to take care of those issues promptly before they become significant. And by breaking up the workload for keeping up the garden into small increments, it feels a lot less like “work.” We come to enjoy time in the garden, a place to relax while drinking a cup of coffee and listening to the birds sing in the trees on a summer morning, as opposed to
But traffic frequency isn’t the only criteria to consider for siting a garden, we also need to consider areas that will have adequate sun and water. Much of my friend’s property is shaded by tall oak trees, so areas receiving adequate sun are somewhat limited to along the north edge of the yard, where the sun path climbs above the treeline on the south end of the lot.
There was another factor in play with this area, though. My friend pointed out to me that when he receives a moderate-to-heavy rain event, water from one of his downspouts forms a stream of water that flows across his yard and down over the hill. If we site a garden in the path of this stream, it could be a problem.
This is another instance in which a permaculture-oriented design approach has its benefits. Bill Mollison, the recently passed co-creator of permaculture, had a saying that he brought up over and over again: “The problem is the solution.” By adopting this mindset, when presented with some sort of limitation we instantly try to figure out how it can actually be incorporated into our design, or how another element (and possible source of yield) can be incorporated to take advantage of it. In this instance, we knew that a garden needs regular watering to keep its soils moist. Here was a source of water free for the taking. We just had to intercept it and slow it down so it would sink into the soil.
We accomplished this by laying out our garden beds on contour, or lines of consistent elevation, with the footpaths being dug down slightly to form shallow, flat ditches (aka “swales”). The end of the first swale was placed in the path of the runoff flow, so instead of continuing through the yard and over the hill, it would be diverted toward the garden.
The above photo shows the garden in the very first stages of construction. First, contour lines were located with a laser level and marked with white utility flags. The flags were then adjusted slightly in order to keep the bed width at 42″ and the swale width at 18″, but still maintain them close to contour. The first swale was excavated to intercept the runoff and divert it toward the garden. The dashed line shows where the runoff went under the original condition.
The final garden layout incorporated three planting beds with a natural wall of forsythia bushes on the north side (seen in the background of the above photo). The swales were dug out and the excavated material was used to create a raised bed on the downhill side. Vegetation and topsoil were skimmed off first and placed face-down, and other excavated soil was then thrown on top of that. The swales were checked with the laser level to ensure they were flat — this will ensure that the runoff won’t so much as flow through them, as pond in them and soak into the soil at the bottom and the raised bed on the lower side. The swales are to be filled with wood chips, which will help to retain moisture, encourage fungal growth (which is immensely helpful to soil growth), and provide a rich habitat for earthworms.
The forsythia will increase the warmth on that side of the bed by acting as a heat sink, radiating stored solar energy back out at nighttime, helping to raise nighttime lows slightly and extend the growing season slightly on that side. So long as the forsythia is cut back every year with any new suckers pulled out or cut off, it will not invade the garden.
After the beds and swales were shaped, and the swales were verified as level, overflow sills were constructed at the north end of each raised bed. A small amount of soil was excavated in the location of each sill, the ground compacted, and sloped back slightly toward the uphill swale. This way, when the first swale fills with water, it slowly overflows into the next swale. Once the second fills, it slowly overflows into the third. And once the third swale overflows, it slowly trickles into the downhill landscape.
After the sills were built and the garden beds shaped, the main landforming work was completed. All in all, two of us were able to accomplish this in about 4-5 hours with nothing but basic hand tools. I gave my friend the instructions to fill the swales with wood chips (as noted above) and cover over the beds with a good thick layer of mulch, such as shredded leaves or compost. The mulch helps to retain moisture, suppress vegetation, and provide a rich habitat for soil life. This layout is perfect for a mixed annual/perennial garden, with some semi-dwarf fruit trees, low bushes and berry canes in the downhill bed and along the north side, and vegetables in the south half of the first two beds. The shading shown in the above picture also shows how the trees on the southern side of the property provide some shade to the garden, creating the ideal kind of conditions for growing some greens through the hotter period of the summer. A fence would need to be installed to keep deer out, but that would be a simple matter with some metal posts and welded wire fencing my friend already had on hand from his earlier gardening efforts.
My friend observed this garden through several rain events, some of them rather intense, and he told me that the garden swales have performed exactly as designed every time, with most of the water soaking into the beds as opposed to just running off the property. I am certain from experience that continuing a good soil regimen of mulching and fall cover crops would have resulted in a very productive garden in this small space. However, due to a positive change in my friend’s life, he has not been able to do much gardening at this site since it was installed. Instead, he and his girlfriend were looking to start gardening at her house in the adjacent town — and they asked me to design and help install a garden at her house. That will be the subject of another post in the near future.