Thursday, May 18, 2017

Permaculture Foundation Planting

I am really excited about a new garden area that I've been thinking about for over a year.

When we bought our house a decade ago, it was basically brand new and it had zero landscaping. We started a garden and began to add fruit trees early on, but the areas along the foundation of our house remained depressingly bare. We've finally made a start towards fixing that with a permaculture food/flower border.


When I was designing this border, I wanted it to fulfill several functions. First, I wanted it to take advantage of the microclimate. The south side of a brick house is a great place to grow more tender plants. I also wanted to mix edible plants with those helpful to pollinators. Lastly, I wanted it to be attractive.

My initial planting plan

Sheet Mulch

Last spring we sheet mulched a long bed around the west and south foundation of our house. First, a layer of cardboard was laid to block weeds and grass. This was topped it off with some good quality topsoil left over from our hugelkulture project, some compost, and then a 6" layer of wood chips. We let it sit for a full year.

By this spring the wood chips had decayed significantly and the soil underneath was rich, black, and full of worms.

The plants

The first plants I selected for the border were fig and wisteria. The fig I chose, Chicago Hardy Fig, is, like its name states, a more hardy selection, but it will greatly benefit from the warm southerly aspect. Wisteria is a nitrogen fixer, and native American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) is much less likely to grow out of control than its Asian cousins.

I also knew I wanted to try rhubarb and rosemary in this location. Rhubarb is a perennial, and I think its leaves are quite dramatic and will be a nice contrasting foilage. I have never managed to over-winter rosemary successfully in other locations on our property, so I decided to nestle in a plant close to the fig tree and hope for the best.

The other main nitrogen fixer I chose is Lespedeza thunbergii 'Gibraltar'. I have wanted to plant this for years and finally located it in a specialist nursery on the east coast. It is a truly gorgeous plant that is covered with blossoms in the fall. It will make great mulch as it has to be cut back each year, releasing nitrogen to feed its neighbors.

I decided against comfrey in the border. Comfrey is incredibly useful and (I think) beautiful, but once you plant it, you'll have it forever. I didn't want to make that commitment in this location. I decided instead to plant borage. Borage is also a great mulch plant. It self-seeds readily, but doesn't have such a tenacious root system.

The last plant I decided was a must-have is Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii). I know this is a controversial choice as it is not native and can be invasive in some areas. Although butterflies like it, as a non-native, it does not provide all the necessary food, habitat, etc. that natives do. After weighing it out, I decided to go ahead and plant it. I don't think buddleia is particularly rampant in NE Kansas. I will be providing many native plants, both in this border and throughout our property. The structure that a medium-sized bush will provide to the design will be welcome.

The remaining plants are a variety of flowering herbs chosen for beauty and value as medicine and/or for pollinators.

It doesn't look like much now, but with time, it will be lovely and productive

Plant List and functions*

-American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) 'Amethyst Falls' - Nitrogen fixer, invertebrate shelter, nectary
-Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) - nectary, wildlife, possibly medicinal
-Blazing Star (Liatris spicata) - nectary, medicinal, wildlife
-Borage (Borago officinalis)  - edible, medicinal, nectary
-Bush Clover (lespedeza thunbergii) 'Gibraltar' - Nitrogen fixer, nectary
-Catmint (Nepeta) - nectary
-Chamomile (Matricaria chamomila) - edible, tea, medicinal, nectary
-Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) - edible, aromatic confuser, nectary, dynamic accumulator, ground cover
-Coreopsis (Coreopsis verticillata) 'Moonbeam' - nectary, groundcover
-Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)- nectary
-Daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum) 'Becky' - nectary
-Fig 'Chicago Hardy' - edible, medicinal
-Hyssop (Agastache) - Invertebrate shelter, nectary, medicinal, aromatic confuser
-Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium dubium) 'Baby Joe' - nectary, medicinal
-Phlox (Phlox paniculata) - nectary
-Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) - tea, medicinal, invertebrate shelter, nectary
-Rhubarb - edible, medicinal
-Rosemary - edible, tea, medicinal, nectary, aromatic confuser, invertebrate shelter, wildlife
-Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) - edible flowers, possibly medicinal
-Salvia 'May Night' - nectary
-Sedum 'Autumn Joy' - nectary
-Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) - culinary, tea, medicinal, wildlife, invertebrate shelter, nectary, aromatic confuser
-Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) - medicinal, invertebrate shelter, nectary, dynamic accumulator, ground cover, aromatic confuser

*Functions taken from Edible Forest Gardens, Volume 2 by Jacke and Toensmeier

The future

This is definitely a work in progress. I looking forward to watching all the tiny plants fill in and to add more to the border next year. I am particularly interested in more perennial vegetables and greens. I want to add more ground cover-type plants and dynamic accumulators as well. I also plan to plant some saffron crocus bulbs. It is a bit too cold up on our windy hill to grow saffron, but I'd like to try it in the warm south-facing border.

A New Peach Polyculture - for free

We've slowed down significantly on our poultry projects. I've stopped selling hatching eggs and have only sold the occasional gosling this spring. This is mainly because I have put all my extra effort into planting and maintaining our food forest. We have been using every extra moment this spring to get a ton of trees in the ground. We had break from planting last year while the tall, dark, and handsome member of the family recovered from back surgery, so we are making up for it this year.

In addition to planting new trees, we have put together our very first food forest polyculture and we did it for absolutely free.

What is a polyculture?

Polyculture simply means growing different kinds of plants together in a way that benefits the whole. A good food forest polyculture will include plants that create mulch, fix nitrogen, repel pests, attract beneficial insects, and build soil minerals.

The bones of this polyculture

The polyculture is formed around two semi-dwarf peach trees that we planted in 2013. One is 'Intrepid' and the other is 'Red Haven'. The 'Red Haven' tree bears the most delicious peaches I have ever eaten and so has a very special place in my heart. Last year I planted a bunch of nitrogen-fixing bushes that I bought from the Kansas Forest Service throughout our food forest.  In this area there is both a False Indigo (Amorpha fruticosa) and a Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens). There was also a Russian comfrey plant grown from roots that I traded hatching eggs for a couple of years ago.

'Redhaven' peach tree in mid-May. The leaves are slightly white due to the kaolin clay spray we apply for a month after petal fall for pest control purposes

So the trees and nitrogen fixers weren't free, but every other item used in this project was.

Next Step - Sheet Mulching

We sheet mulched the area in the fall to kill off the grass and make way for the plants we'd add in the spring. My husband and kids put down a layer of cardboard and I dumped a wide variety of organic matter over the top - used litter from my chicken and duck houses, fall leaves, and wood chips. We ended up with a good 6 inches of organic matter by the time I was done.

After I pruned some bushes this spring I put down some of the twigs and small branches as a path through the polyculture. Such ramial wood is a top food for the beneficial fungus we are seeking to partner with. If I had a chipper on hand I would have used it, but whole twigs will decompose, too, albeit at a slower rate.

All the other plants in this polyculture were either started them from seed that we were given, transplanted from volunteer seedlings or divisions from other parts of our garden, or were received the plants as free bonuses from a nursery. Quite a number of the plants were started from expired seed that was discarded by retail stores. Most seeds will germinate quite well even after several years, so when we had the chance to get expired seed packets for free, we loaded up.

'Red Lake' currant
more Comfrey
Lemon Balm
Garlic Chives
Flanders Poppy
Butternut Squash

I plan to allow all the herbs to go to seed and to spread, creating a ground cover that should choke out grass and weeds while yielding us product. If they get too rampant, a little chopping and dropping in place as mulch will keep them in check.

The new polyculture right after planting

I'd like to add some more plants with tap roots, such as horseradish or daikon radish, and more comfrey and other mulch plants but otherwise I am very pleased with what I ended up with for absolutely FREE.