New Internationalist

10 DIY Permaculture Ideas

Issue 402

The practical application of permaculture

Illustration by Stig: www.shtig.net
Illustration by Stig: www.shtig.net

1 Living roofs

It really couldn’t be simpler. The roof can even be flat, as long as there is a slight pitch for drainage. Make sure the rafters are adequately load-bearing for a small volume of soil. Cover with old carpet. Fix with battens. Fix edging board to retain the soil but make one side that can drain. Add a pond membrane and staple to the boards. Mix a growing medium. This can be soil mixed with municipal compost from green waste, leca granules or crushed brick. The reason for mixing soil with a lighter medium is to lessen the load. Then plant drought-resistant plants into the medium, mulch the gaps with bark and watch them grow, spread and flower into a bee’s paradise. You can buy sedum mats. Countries like Germany that have pioneered them have some wonderful hi-tech examples of sedum roofs on large buildings. But this DIY system is equally effective and can cost a fifth less than conventional roofing materials.

2 Edible balconies

Windowsills are great places for growing culinary herbs and sprouting seeds and grains. Balconies too can be productive spaces. If they are sunny, trellising up the walls can support annual crops like climbing French beans grown in containers. Containers on the floor, walls and hung from the ceiling and railings can grow a variety of edibles, from annual vegetables to fruits like blueberries and strawberries. It’s even possible to grow fig and dwarf varieties of apple trees in pots, though they do need pruning and feeding. The most important aspect of container growing is to feed and water the plants regularly and make sure the infrastructure is adequate to support the weight of containers. Shady balconies can grow plants like wild garlic, salads and rhubarb. You could also consider a few logs inoculated with mushroom spawn, such as oyster and shiitake. It may even be possible to keep quail for eggs if there is adequate space for a run.

3 Forest gardens

Forest gardens have existed in the tropics and sub-tropics from time immemorial. The idea is to grow mainly perennial food crops in every available niche, from the roots, ground cover and shrub layer up to the small trees and larger trees. It was the late Robert Hart who visited Kerala and brought the idea back to Britain. He dreamed of an edible forest garden that could meet the needs of the gardener for medicines, food and useful resources. It is one thing, however, to design and plant these systems in the sun-drenched regions of the world, and another to try to replicate them in temperate Europe or North America. Along came author and horticulturist, Patrick Whitefield, who wrote about designing temperate forest gardens, taking into account shorter growing seasons and lower light levels. For instance, by spacing our fruiting trees further apart we ensure that we exploit the fertile, lighter ‘edges’ of the garden to their full potential. The idea that edible, perennial forest gardens can be adapted to cold climates took root.

4 Community allotments

In Britain it is every person’s statutory right to be provided with an allotment under the 1922 Allotment Act. But tending even half an allotment can be too onerous, so community allotments have become more common. By combining plots on a site, they allow people to share the work and produce. Some have taken this a step further by creating ponds, compost toilets, shelters, even washing-up facilities. These sites are also used for educational visits to demonstrate a variety of techniques, such as straw-bale building, worm composting and rainwater harvesting. Although some allotment societies do not allow the planting of fruit trees, others do. This has encouraged the planting of community forest gardens and orchards. There is even an orchard project in Nottinghamshire that has formed a cider club, planting specific varieties for the press and holding annual cider-making days.

5 Water harvesting

There are many ways of harvesting rainwater. Simply placing an 80-litre barrel at the end of a down-pipe is the most obvious. Why not add a tray of watercress at the bottom? Once the barrel is full, the water diverts back to the drain but first washes through the cress, giving you an extra yield. It is also possible to harvest larger quantities by installing a 3,500-litre tank underground in the garden. This way you can harvest up to 90 per cent of rainwater for year-round use – the remaining 10 per cent is used to flush out the system. The water itself is used for non-potable purposes and fed to the house by a small electric pump that turns on automatically when the washing machine, for example, is switched on.

6 Reusing tyres

An early permaculture idea was tyre ponds. Cut the rim off one side of the tyre using a sharp knife, hack saw or metal-cutting jigsaw blade. Dig a hole large enough to fit the tyre in level to the ground and a further, deeper reservoir below the tyre level. Remove any sharp stones or sticks, place a plastic or rubber liner in the hole and lower the tyre on to the plastic, the uncut wall downside. Then add water, wrap the liner over the inside of the tyre and into the earth at ground level. Back-fill and cover the edge with stones. The uncut rim of the tyre makes a useful edge for marginal plants. Another recycled tyre idea is to ram them with earth or chalk and build retaining walls into banks with them. A more humble idea is to grow potatoes in a stack of several car tyres. Instead of ‘earthing up’ you ‘tyre up’! My favourite idea uses tractor tyres. Place three in a stack and slowly fill with compostable materials. The sun heats up the tyres and accelerates decomposition. When you want to harvest your compost, simply remove the stack tyre by tyre and spade it out. These are also useful structures to grow tomatoes next to, as they hasten the ripening of the crop.

7 No-dig mulch gardens

No-dig and mulch may not be exclusive to permaculture but permaculture gardeners have certainly embraced them with enthusiasm and added their creative flair in the design of them. The idea of no-dig is simple. Healthy soil is an ecosystem in itself, a complex web of micro-organisms, plant nutrients, and organic matter necessary for healthy plants. When we dig soil we disrupt that ecosystem and reduce fertility. The easiest way to grow vegetables the no-dig way is in a raised bed where organic matter can be accumulated and the gardener’s feet do not compact the soil. The most important starter is to mulch the soil, excluding weeds in the first year. All sorts of materials can be used for mulch, such as black plastic, cardboard, newspaper and straw, even non-synthetic carpet. You can spot-plant through the mulch even in the first year. In damp climates slugs and snails love mulch, causing a pest explosion. I find they can be controlled by having coarse woodchip paths (monopeds don’t like crossing them); covering seedlings with clear plastic bottles or in copper circles controls them – as does a spot of hand-picking by torchlight!

8 Animal tractors

Why till the soil when a bird or animal, such as a chicken or pig, will do it naturally for you? In the garden, the idea is to make a moveable run. Chickens naturally scratch up the soil, eat disturbed pests and small weeds and leave their manure behind. This doesn’t work so well with hardy perennial weeds like couch grass that have deep roots. Once the chickens have done their work, the tractor is moved on and the soil is ready for replanting. So we have a number of functions going on at the same time in good permaculture tradition – weeding, pest control and fertilizing – for little work on the gardener’s part. Chicken tractors are simple to make and very effective, though you can of course create some elegant designs with housing on wheels for ease of transportation. On a large area, unringed pigs can be used to ‘plough’ the soil, preparing it for cultivation. They can root out pasture otherwise needing renovation, leaving bare soil rich with their manure and ready to be levelled and resown.

9 The chicken greenhouse

Always look for multiple yields – the antithesis of monoculture. Chickens are inherently useful creatures. Not only do they yield eggs and meat, they are good waste-disposal units eating vegetable waste and garden weeds. They produce rich manure for the garden and are useful pest controllers. Place their house on the shady side of a greenhouse and you can also harvest their heat at night, their carbon dioxide for the plants, and use the early morning heat from the glazed side to warm them up to lay. Add a rainwater butt to the roof and plant a forage system in their run to make them even more self-sufficient. Design this system within a productive garden, perhaps with an orchard, and the yields become even greater. In a battery system the chicken’s carbon dioxide, manure, feathers and heat are pollutants. But in the small-scale permaculture system, they are yields. Key to this is the relationship between all the elements in the design. They become truly useful assets by virtue of their placement.

10 Swales

A swale is a small ditch that holds water and allows it to penetrate the soil. The bottom is lined, gravelled, sanded, loosened or rippled. Swales are constructed on contours or dead-level survey lines. They slow down, even stop, water run-off and soil erosion. They can be small ridges in gardens, rock piles placed across a slope or excavated hollows. The spoil from the hollow is usually placed downhill. Essential is the planting of trees. This is partly to stabilize the construction but is mainly to avoid salination, a significant problem in arid climates. The Loess plateau in China is a fine example of swales. The plateau covers an area the size of France in northwest China and has among the world’s highest soil erosion rates. In recent years, however, the discontinuation of farming on steep slopes and the establishment of large-scale terracing and swales have made a significant difference. There has been a regeneration of traditional terraced agriculture. Swales have made possible the planting of thousands of trees that have begun to stabilize parts of the area, and provide food and forage for inhabitants.

Written by Maddy Harland who is the editor of Permaculture Magazine – Solutions for Sustainable Living and a co-founder of Permanent Publications, a publishing company specializing in developing our understanding of permaculture. For more information see: www.permaculture.co.uk

  1. For more information on all of the above ideas see The Earth Care Manual by Patrick Whitefield, available from: www.green-shopping.co.uk

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