While discussing the global ramifications of Brexit, the division of the Republican Party by Donald Trump, or the legalization of marijuana nationally are all invigorating topics to discuss, the discourse they provoke does not aid in decompression at the end of the day. Critical to our continued success, we must find ways to turn our political enthusiasm down to a simmer and relish in moments that need no advocates. For those brief moments of calm, I have turned to growing food.
On a trip to Bristol, England four years ago, I happened upon a book called The Edible Garden by Alys Fowler. She describes herself as a professional gardener and writer but she seems, to me, to be an artist. Fowler decided to turn her backyard into an “edible landscape” and this book detailed her backyard transformation. The principles she employs are polyculture and permaculture, both a bit unconventional in agriculture and a bit impractical on a very large scale; but for a small-scale backyard gardener, they work beautifully.
The first principle, polyculture, is the theory and practice of planting multiple plants together. Three Sisters companion planting of corns, beans and squash together is the most well known form of polyculture. The corn stalk provides the support for the beans, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil, and the squash’s large, pokey leaves and stalks shade the soil for higher moisture retention as well deter hungry animals. This theory works well in backyard applications and Fowler suggests trying polyculture with other plants as well. Both tomatoes and basil love nutrient rich, moist soils but basil can get burned on hot days. Plant the basil under your tomato to help provide shade for your delicate herb. Or, plant radishes, lettuce, and carrots together. The radishes can be harvested within a month after planting. In addition to a quick harvest, the leaves of radish plants also provide shade for the planted area, increasing moisture retention. The lettuce then takes over with the first harvest just a couple weeks after the radishes. The lettuce roots are shallow, so they will not interfere with the growth of the carrots, whose roots reach much deeper into the soil. Finally, the first carrots will be ready for harvest two to three weeks after the lettuce has been eaten. All three are cold tolerant plants as well, so can be planted just before or at the least frost of the winter.
The second principle is permaculture, which is less a method of agriculture and more a system to establish and maintain a productive ecosystem for both human and animals that utilize the space. While humans create the space to be productive, the goal is to mimic naturally occurring patterns of an ecosystem. Plants that need the most attention or get the most use, like salad leaves and herbs will be planted closest to the house. Then as you move away from the house, the plants need less care and mimic what is naturally found; first the vegetable garden, then beyond that are fruit and nut trees, then a forgeable food area with wild berries, roots, and other edible wild plants.
The system integrates a number of animals that are critical in a fully functioning permaculture garden for farm. Worms break down the garden waste as they eat and process it. Often, bugs are introduced as pest control, i.e. ladybugs for an aphid infestation. The wilder orchards and forgeable places provide a habitat for wild birds and bees to help spread seed and pollinate the year’s crop. Chickens, ducks and goats play critical roles in many permaculture farms. All three can forage for some their food, rather than rely on a diet fortified by monocropped corn or can be fed waste from the vegetable garden. Ducks and chickens eat insects and so can help manage pests. The fecal matter from all three is used as compost material to reintroduce nutrients back into the system without the use of fertilizer. And all three produce or are food consumed by people.
While it is difficult to create such a wonderful, self- sustaining habitat for both human and animal consumers, I have found that Fowler helps in the visualization and design of a garden space within the limitations of a city lot. Smaller, dwarf varieties of apple, pear, nectarine, and peach trees can be planted instead of full size trees. Vines like hops and grapes and bushes like blueberries and raspberries can be planted at the edge of the lot for both people and insect foragers. The vegetable patch can be planted with edible flowers like nasturtiums, pansies, and calendula intermingling to attract even more pollinators. The chickens can be fed the more bitter outer leaves of the kale, chard, as well as lots of other compostable garden and kitchen waste and their fecal matter tilled back into the garden the next year.
Alys Fowler’s The Edible Garden has led to a path of distraction. The feeling of success when at finding the first sun ripened tomato, hiding under a creeping vine of nasturtiums is enough to relieve the weight of global politics, even if just for a second. So when both Fox News and NPR are replaying another clip from Donald Trump’s latest speech, do yourself a favor; grab some seeds, a little soil, and plant yourself a garden.
This article was written by Erin Benton, a writer for dusk magazine.