The Vegetable Gardener's Guide to Permaculture

Today's post is about the The Vegetable Gardener's guide to Permaculture by Christopher Shein

Christopher Shein is a permaculture designer, garden builder, teacher and author that lives in California.  He studied and worked in many places but way back in the day he studied at Linnaea Farm!!! shout out to all the Linnaea alumni!

This book is a very good intro to permaculture, gardens and ecology.  He explains ideas and techniques in easy ways, using pictures and diagrams.  The book is beautiful.  In his intro Christopher Shein says:

" This book is a practical guide to basic ecological literacy and permaculture gardening.  I have tried to break down the techniques and language of permaculture to show that any gardener can be a positive asset to the interconnected web of life. Planting a permaculture garden is a dream for many people who have even a small amount of land, and I believer permaculture is a viable ecological design strategy suited to anyone's backyard- or even to a front yard, rooftop, balcony, neighbor's garden, school garden, or community garden." (pg 9)

He does exactly that!

 The only caveat I will say is that he is in California- so for some of us Northerners, olives, chayote, yacon might not fly... but most of the species mentioned grow in colder climates, and all of the techniques and approaches are applicable.  He also does make a point to mention different veggie varieties for warmer and colder climates as well as how you might apply permaculture principles differently depending on your climate.

I will not go through the whole book- I will just highlight two sections.

The Fruit Tree Guild

I wanted to talk about this because I have been thinking of guilds for the food forest that we will be planting in Creston in the spring 2014.  I have the big plan for all the trees in the forest, but I haven't yet planned out the lowers layers... something to do for the winter!

Fruit Tree guild in fall, Bullock's Homestead, Orcas Is, WA

A guild is group of plants or species that all have synergistic relationships.  Guilds are inspired by patterns of species occurrences/relationships in nature. When planning or planting your own guilds you want to try to  maximize beneficial relationships.  The most famous guild is the three sisters, where corn, squash and beans are all grown together.  In this guild the corn provides the support for beans to climb up.  Squash covers the ground and prevents weeds from growing and keeps moisture in the soil, and the beans fix nitrogen which helps improve the fertility of the soil.

A fruit tree guild is where you have a fruit tree as a central element and you try to add other plants or species to help this tree grow, produce and flourish.  Christopher Shein breaks down fruit tree guilds in 4 categories: plants that fix nitrogen, plants to provide mulch, nitrogen fixers and plants that attract beneficial insects.
Peach Palm planted with comfrey, gliricidia, flowers, and
banana, Ginger Hills, Hawaii

Nitrogen fixers

Certain plants have bacteria or other microorganisms that live in nodules attached to their roots that fix nitrogen.  Nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient and is required for plant growth.  Nitrogen makes up the building blocks of  chlorophyll, proteins, enzymes as well as ATP (Adenosine-triphosphate- which is like cellular energy). The most prevalent form of nitrogen in the world is N2,  or atmospheric nitrogen, but it cannot be absorbed by plants in this form. The bacteria take atmospheric nitrogen (N2) and change it into ammonia (NH3) which is readily usable by plants.  In exchange, the plants give the bacteria sugars that they produce from photosynthesis.

Grape arbour with lupines, snapdragons, sweet peas, scarlet runner beans for N fixers

Nitrogen fixing plants such as alder, lupine, locust, siberian peashrub, seabuckthorn, peas, beans, buffalo berry can be planted as part of a fruit tree guild or food forest.  If these plants are pruned/coppiced and the branches left on the ground, the plant roots will dye back and release nitrogen into the soil.  The branches and leaves will also enrich the soil as they decompose.

Grape arbour- snap dragons with lemongrass, chamomile
 and artichoke

Living Mulches

Mulch is generally a layer of 'stuff' that covers the soil, like a blanket. Mulch suppresses weeds, retains soil moisture and builds fertility as it decomposes. It could be cardboard, woodchips, straw, leaves or it could be a living mulch.  Living mulches are great for guilds because you don't constantly have to be bringing in supplies and spreading them around.  People often grow comfrey as a mulch plant because  it can be cut many times in a year and placed around your plants to add fertility as the leaves decompose.  I have also seen different cut and come again mulch plants like grass (think grass clippings from your lawn, bananas (tropics), lemongrass (tropics) and nitrogen fixing plant branches and leaves (alder, locust) used for mulch.  

Mint as a living mulch (be careful it spreads) in
my grey water/papyrus/papaya/mint/comfrey guild, ASYV, Rwanda


Christopher Shein says that he uses Jerusaleum artichokes or sun chokes for mulch.  He cuts them 2-3 times per season, and still gets a good harvest of the roots.  Living mulches could be things like squash plants, nasturtium- because they spread so much and cover the ground with their big leaves.  One of the most common perennial mulches, or undersown cover crop is clover.  It not only covers the soil really well when it gets established, but it is also a nitrogen fixer.

Taro mulched with banana and palm leaves
Ginger Hills, Hawaii

Nutrient Catchers (Dynamic Accumulators)

Nutrient catchers, or dynamic accumulators are plants that typically have a long tap root and pull of nutrients deep down in the soil and bring them to the surface.  Some plants accumulate specific plant nutrients or micro nutrients.  Examples of nutrient catchers are dandelion, comfrey, yellow dock, borage, lupines, marigolds, yarrow, nettles....  These are great to cut and leave on the ground or toss in your compost pile.

Comfrey in a greywater ditch, ASYV, Rwanda

Insect Attractors

Attracting beneficial insects is very important in a garden environment.  Christopher Shein says: "entomologist estimate that 90 percent of common garden bugs are pollinators or pest predators and only 10 percent are likely to damage crops." (pg 42)  In a fruit tree guild, you might try to plant a flower that opens around the same time as your fruit tree flowers, to attract more pollinating insects to the tree. Plants from the Asteraceae (sunflowers, lettue, asters), Apiaceae (carrot, parsley, cilantro) and Brassicaceae (broccoli, arugula, radish) families are especially good at bringing in parasitic wasp and flies which are good predators to crop pests.

Grape Arbour guild all grown up, Know & Grow, Creston, BC

Together, all the elements of a guild will help support each other so you don't have to do as much work and still get to eat lots of delicious food.

Permaculture and Community

As I have mentioned before, permaculture has three ethics.  Earth care, people care and fair share.  The last section of his book is about fair share.  And fair share can include all kinds of sharing!

Seed libraries, Commons, CSA, Crop Swaps

" Sharing food and seed for future harvests is guided by the ethic of fair share and the permaculture principle of integration not separation.  And you can also contribute to the effort to preserve heirloom varieties and maintain crop diversity." (pg 248)

Seed saving demo at K&G for the Dan McMurrary Seed Bank, Creston, BC
Christopher Shein talks about starting a seed library.  He highlights the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL) as an example."This seed library is similar to a book library.  Thousands of people come through and check out seeds for the season and then return them through an annual seed swap." (pg 248)

Shein also talks about starting a community food forest, or a commons.  These community can be a great areas for collecting food, for gathering, for classes, for learning and relaxing.

Spring Ridge Commons- Forest Garden in Victoria, BC

He also talks about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).  These are maybe know better as veggies boxes.  CSA is when you give money to the farmer for a season, and in return the farmer produces a weekly veggie bin.

Produce swaps are another great way of sharing abundance.  Everyone brings their carrots, chard, plums, herbs, tomatoes or whatever garden bounty they have at a gathering.  Everyone takes just a few things, and then when it is clear that everyone has a bit, more can be taken. In Creston there is a great program called Harvest Share, where people with too many beets, plums, walnuts,etc can get volunteers to come pick the abundance.  They will receive 1/3 of the harvest, the food bank will receive 1/3 and the volunteers will receive 1/3.

Potato Coop planting potatoes at Linnaea Farm, Cortes Island, BC

Volunteer days

Volunteer days are "...a great way to gather people to share the tasks of growing and harvesting food.  And better yet, it's a terrific way to see all of the permaculture principles in action." (pg 251)  Plan a potluck or some kind of food sharing at the end of the day to say thank you to the volunteers and build the sense of community. Here are Christopher Shein's tips on organizing volunteer days:
  • "Make it fun and educational.
  • Have a clearly defined purpose and goal.
  • Figure out the project details ahead of time.
  • Have various projects for people with different skills and abilities.
  • Provides tools and gloves.
  • If the event takes place at a community garden or other site away from home. find the locations of nearby public bathrooms. 
  • Try to have something tangible that participants can take home, like plant starts or some crisp fall apples. 
  • Use social media like Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, and Google groups to get the word out.   Post before and after pictures on these pages after the project is completed." (pg 252)

Seed potato work party in Castlegar, BC

It's a great book so go and take it out of your library, buy a copy or borrow it from a friend!

Also- listen to an interview of Christopher Shein on Sustainable World Radio

He recaps his book really well in the podcast, but I especially love how he talks about 'planting water'.  Instead of thinking of water of something that comes from a tap and can be a huge waster, or drain on resources... we can be designing our gardens with water conservation in mind- catching rainwater, using greywater, planting species according to water needs, planting densely, mulching, and including earthworks such as swales, ponds and other contours to slow, spread, sink the water.

Marking a swale with an A-frame, and digging it, K&G food forest, Creston, BC


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